|To search, type one or more key words below.|
heywere like Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Paul Laurence Dunbar and his wife, Alice Ruth Moore insisted; like the English poets, they eloped against the wishes of disapproving parents. By the time of their marriage in 1898, Dunbar -- an appealing, dark-skinned dandy of a man -- had been anointed by the reigning critic, William Dean Howells, as the first American Negro to have ''evinced innate distinction in literature.'' Moore, a light-skinned beauty with hazel eyes and auburn hair, had, at the age of 20, published her first volume of writings in 1895, the same year that Dunbar saw her picture in a Boston magazine and fell precipitately in love.
Though less talented than Paul, Alice, a college graduate, was buoyed by the tide of praise that accompanied the genteel, race-lifting achievements of an increasing number of educated black women who were expected to do for the race what Alice's mere image had done for Paul. ''You bring out the best that is in me,'' he wrote before they met. ''I am better and purer for having touched hands with you over all these miles.'' Like that of the Brownings, their early courtship was more words than deeds. Moore and Dunbar corresponded with each other for nearly two years before meeting at the house of a mutual friend.
But, of course, as Eleanor Alexander makes clear in ''Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow,'' Paul and Alice, both children of slaves, lived, loved and wrote under very different conditions than the Brownings. Their generation of elite blacks, born into the thicket of Victorian expectations, had to contend with claims, issued with scientific certainty, that however acculturated they were, their color was a visible marker for an inherent and prurient savagery. It was a period when the rise in lynchings accompanied the rise in black education and achievement; when a writer like Dunbar could be invited to read his poetry at the same 1893 World's Columbian Exposition that featured exhibits of technical prowess and fine arts in vivid contrast to ''primitive'' African villages constructed by Ivy League anthropologists. If there was any doubt about the status of Dunbar (and American blacks in general), journalists chided them for feeling superior to their scantily clad, undulating cousins dancing to ''unseen tom-toms.''
Whites may have been willing to praise a dark-skinned poet -- but only one who was willing to regale them with quaint plantation humor about uneducated rural blacks. In his desperation to get published, Dunbar, who had never been south, added ''dialect'' poems to his repertory: verse written in a ''broken tongue,'' as he described the minstrelized language. The decision helped bring him international fame and the financial means, at long last, to live his dream of being a writer. But it also made him despise his most celebrated work. Howells extolled Dunbar's dialect poems to the virtual exclusion of the poet's preferred verses in standard English, thus establishing a pattern of praise that haunted him.
The nature of Dunbar's celebrity certainly complicated his relationship with Moore. On the one hand, his mainstream acknowledgment gave him the income and status to marry his ''ideal'' -- a characterization that undoubtedly reflected the all-too-common preference among blacks for lighter-skinned partners. But Alice thought his dialect poems a prostitution of his talent. Her own writing was about the sophisticated, fair-skinned Creoles of New Orleans -- a group as socially distant from Dunbar's subjects as white is from black. Like most African-Americans, she may not have embraced the most pathological views about blackness, but neither was she immune to conflating color with class and beauty.
The era's mind-bending polarities could produce heroes. Howells proclaimed Dunbar to be the ''only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically.'' As evidenced by the innumerable schools, literary prizes and cultural societies named after him, the poet's fame among blacks was exceeded only by that of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. And against the backdrop of insistent and widely published opinions that there was no such thing as a virtuous black woman, Moore -- with her regal bearing, hard-earned college degree and ''upturned nose,'' as Dunbar described it -- was included in the rash of books dedicated to the achievement of ''representative'' women who proved the exception. When the Dunbars married in 1898, they joined a number of high-visibility couples who made public attempts to balance racial, gender and marital expectations with the changing roles of women.
Between 1898 and 1904, Dunbar added four collections of short stories, four novels and a bevy of song lyrics to his already formidable list of published poems. His publisher also brought out Alice's next volume of stories. Nevertheless, what Alexander calls their tragedy -- a judgment that begs for a more nuanced interpretation -- hovered over the couple. It was brought upon them primarily by Dunbar, whose alcoholism was compounded by what appears to have been a bipolar disorder that eerily mirrored the society around him. The result was effusive expressions of sentiment, melancholia or violent outbursts -- all of which found their way to Alice. During the course of their marriage, there were extraordinary letters in which both expressed tenderness, love and an eroticism worthy of their lyrical talents. But Dunbar's drinking and rantings got worse and even spilled over to public acts of humiliation and violence. In January 1902, four years before his death at the age of 34, he beat Alice within an inch of her life. She left him and, ignoring his ardent entreaties for reconciliation, never saw him again.
What makes ''Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow'' important is its use of the almost 500 letters the couple exchanged, which comment on every aspect of their relationship. Such primary sources are understandably rare, even among educated blacks -- especially women -- who engaged in what the historian Darlene Clark Hine calls a ''culture of dissemblance'' in an effort to conceal their inner lives from a society that made them sexually vulnerable. Of course, the public-private dissonance is a general feature of Victorian culture, but it is not difficult to understand why the driving force behind Victorian courtship -- to find the one true love to whom you could confide your innermost soul -- was particularly intense among black Americans, whose behavior was subject to the racial double standard. This makes Alice's letters particularly important. Included in the correspondence, which she took pains to preserve for her niece, was the subject of ''one damned night of folly,'' as the Dunbars called it: ''rape'' as Alexander characterizes it.
Whether the idea of having sex with Paul, to whom Alice was engaged at the time, was anathema to her is unclear. But the brutality of the act was not. Dunbar assaulted his future bride severely enough to cause extensive internal injuries that required months to heal. His fervent, self-deprecating apologies notwithstanding, it was a harrowing engagement present, and speculation regarding Alice's decision to marry him the next year should have provided the most dramatic and revelatory passages in the book. But as with the didactic commentary on the couple's views about race, Alexander, who teaches history at Georgia Tech, falls into the cant of academic discourse about spousal abuse, rape and the limited choices of a 19th-century black woman with Alice's social and literary ambitions. Clearly there is so much more here to be read both in and between the lines, but there is little analysis of the sort that would yield deeper insights.
For example, there are hints that, for better or for worse, the assault by Dunbar -- whom Alice knew to be alcoholic, insecure and, at a time when her own commitment seemed to waver, desperate to bind her to him -- might not have been the defining act of a failed relationship, as Alexander presents it. Alice's clearest complaints seemed to be a broader indictment of Dunbar's inability to abide by the rules of Victorian intimacy. He was not only incapable of exposing his inner emotions but betrayed such confidences as Alice's illegitimate birth and even the rape that had made her ineligible for anyone else. Such infidelity was the least removable stain on Victorian relationships, which, in the end, required more than passion or even romance. ''Dear, I am afraid we are not yet confidential friends,'' Alice wrote to her husband.
Perhaps a closer reading of Alice's published diary, ''Give Us Each Day,'' would have provided a richer perspective. One wishes for more only because Alexander's significant, welcome, yet also disappointing book gives us so much to think about in the moving story of two educated, sensitive, talented people, trying to find their way into the world and each other's lives.
Paula J. Giddings teaches black women's studies at Smith College. Her most recent book is a forthcoming biography of Ida B. Wells.